book review

Book Review: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Vesper Flights is Helen Macdonald’s latest book chronicling her relationship with nature. This is slightly different from her previous books in the respect it’s not a linear narrative but a collection of essays that also explores “The human relationship with nature”.

We are given more of an insight into Macdonald’s upbringing as she regales us with anecdotes of emotional journeys to her childhood home and dark episodes on a falcon breeding farm in Wales. Her passion for nature and the natural world comes across strongly, without sermonising. In one chapter she mentions Fox hunting and how she’s morally opposed to it, without admonishing those that do partake in it. A common thread throughout the essays is how we can be so involved with the conservation of nature yet still be so detached from it. Admittedly it’s something that I’ve never even thought about before, so I’ll be paying more attention to the way I interact with the world around me from now on.
One thing that seems to draw me in with Mcdonald’s writing is that there always seems to be an underlying sadness in the way she writes. Even when she’s partaking in a stunning bird-watching event, she never quite gives herself over to the joy and excitement of that moment. At one point after reading how she once covered herself in mud and twigs and stalked a herd of cows I just wanted to put my arms around her and ask if she’s ok. (Oddly enough in the same chapter there is a very dark incident with a dying Ostrich, but it was the incident with the cows that worried me most)
I’d be interested to read something Macdonald wrote before her father passed away. It is obvious that the death of her father did have a profound effect on her, and it would be curious to see if that is also what has influenced this mournful quality in her writing.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a critique in any way I like the way she can convey the melancholy of a murmuration. As a perpetually positive person, I do need to be prodded with the emotion stick every now and again.
There is a line in one of the essays “I shouldn’t do it also because pulling at your heart on purpose is a compulsion as particular and disconcerting as pressing on a healing bruise” so maybe she gets some cathartic pleasure from heartache. I’m envious; I lost both my parents within a few years of each other and I find it very hard to engage in any strong emotions regarding this. I miss them, but I think my innate ability to detach myself from unpleasant situations has worked a little too well here and I can’t articulate exactly how that makes me feel.

Woah, so that was a major digression, let’s put that brick back and summarise the review, shall we?

After reading Vesper Flights, even if you don’t like the whole book, I defy you not to have a favourite chapter. It’s close but I think I liked ‘Goats’ the best, as not only is it a funny story, but you can practically hear the little smile as Macdonald reminisces about her dad.

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